What if college basketball used college football's playoff system?
Last week's non-competitive College Football Playoff semifinal round paired with Monday's National Championship blowout left me, once again, wanting more from the highest sub-division of Division I football. Seven years through the FBS' current four-team playoff model, we've had 14 semifinal games; just three of them have been decided by one score. An early January opening round thumping has become par for the course, an unexciting New Years tradition.
Was anybody really surprised last Friday? No. 1 Alabama opened as a 20-point favorite over the no. 4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a team that got walloped by Clemson 34-10 in the ACC title game. As I've written over the past few weeks, I am not a fan of the FBS' playoff system and believe it is in dire need of an upgrade.
Conversely, the Division I NCAA men's basketball tournament is universally loved, an all-inclusive event that pulls in fans from all over the country. Even better, it gives each conference champion a chance to slug it out and compete for a national championship. If a team falls short of a championship, it does so on the basketball court, and not in the court of public opinion.
Each March, there are four no. 1 seeds in the Tournament with, in theory, the clearest path to the Final Four. While a selection committee does indeed play a part in picking the nation's top four teams, teams still have to go out and compete, in order to fit in to the elusive Final Four.
College football, however, opens the door for controversy each year as it skips straight to the Final Four, wrongly excluding a majority of the sport's conference champions. In the most recent College Football Playoff, seven of ten FBS conference champs were left out of the playoff field, while two ACC schools received bids, accounting for half of the sport's postseason field. Both ACC teams were clearly outmatched, losing to Ohio State and Alabama by a combined margin of 80-42. Despite being denied a College Football Playoff bid, the Big 12 went a perfect 5-0 in bowl play last week, while the same ACC that produced two CFP teams, finished bowl season 0-6.
So naturally, I began wondering: What if college basketball did it differently? What if instead of holding a Big Dance every March, college basketball put on a lame homeschool prom in some smelly garage? I decided to take a deep-dive into the last 20 NCAA men's basketball tournaments and I was especially curious as to how no. 1 seeds have performed.
From the years 2000-2019, there have been 80 no. 1 seeds. Just 30 of them made it to the Final Four.
One of the main arguments I hear against expanding the FBS' playoff field is that it "won't change the inevitable outcome of the tournament". In other words, Oklahoma, Cincinnati, Ball State, San Jose State, Coastal Carolina, BYU and UAB were written off from contention this year, and there's no reason for any of them to waste their time. Let me make myself clear: I don't think including a few extra conference champions and one independent team to the playoff would have prevented the buzz saw that is the Alabama offense from rolling through each of its opponents en route to Coach Saban's sixth national title with the program. But that doesn't mean an expanded playoff wouldn't make the tournament better.
50 out of 80 times over the last 20 years, teams that were perceived to be outside of the nation's top four teams reached the Final Four. If college basketball used college football's playoff system, those 50 teams would not have been given a chance to compete. 62.5% of the time, the field has won out over number one seeds, and each time it does, even if a non-one-seed came up short of winning a title, it made program history and gave its fan base something worth celebrating. A banner will forever hang in that school's gym. Simply making the Final Four, the Elite Eight or the Sweet Sixteen is satisfactory for mid-majors, and moderate tournament success can provide smaller programs the arsenal needed to push their program forward, and over time, become a legitimate contender. Had Gonzaga never been given the opportunity to sink or swim in the 1995 Tournament, they never would have built a Duke-like perennial powerhouse that has made it to the tournament 21 straight years and counting.
Here's a look at the 80 teams that have appeared in the Final Four over the last 20 years.
Since the dawn of the new millennium, 38 different teams from a total of 13 conferences have taken a trip to the Final Four, with the Big Ten making more trips than any other conference.
Even the Colonial Athletic Association produced two Final Four teams in six years, between 2006 George Mason and 2011 VCU. If college basketball had a four-team playoff, there's no chance the Colonial, Missouri Valley, Horizon League, American or Conference USA would ever crack it. We'd instead see a contingency of Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan State, Kansas and a few others remaining at the top. High school recruits would choose to play at the small list of schools that would give them the best chance at winning a championship. Gonzaga, as we know it today, would not exist.
Over time, having a 64+ team tournament has lessened the gap between the sport's blue blood programs, and its mid-major counterparts. In our second-most recent tournament (in 2018), an 11-seeded Loyola team made a run to the Final Four out of the Missouri Valley. Five years earlier, 9-seeded Wichita State made a Final Four push out of the same conference.
In seven years, just 11 teams total have appeared in college football's Final Four, all from power five conferences. One of the sport's biggest difficulties in drawing the interest of new and casual fans is that the teams at the top stay at the top, and there's little hope for teams outside of the sport's elite brass. Casual fans are tired of seeing the same teams appearing in the Playoff year in and year out, and the sport's biggest draw to bring in new fans -- the College Football Playoff -- has been a dud more often than not. Playoff games haven't been close.
Not every tournament in March yields the same result. Some tournaments are for more memorable than others. Sometimes the Final Four is lackluster, leaving more to be desired from the fans. Typically when that happens, the early rounds of the tournament produce enough excitement to last the whole month. If the NCAA Tournament was limited to just four teams, we easily would have erased some of the best moments in sports history such as a 16-seed sending home a one-seed on day one, and Bryce Drew's impossible buzzer-beater to knock off Ole Miss.
50 times out out 80, the teams that would have been given automatic access to a four-team playoff, couldn't get to the Final Four. Stat geeks and computers can come up with whatever win probability metrics they choose to, but in sports, anything can happen on any given day. Sports aren't a math test, and sometimes the illogical and the impossible prevails over the predictable.
Thankfully, the NCAA Tournament isn't limited to four teams, and thankfully, March Madness remains the best postseason in sports.
(Photo via Getty Images)